‘The financial anxiety was overwhelming’: Rocketing law school debts and poor salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for junior lawyers

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By Thomas Connelly on

New damning research

Rising law school fees and low salaries are preventing young legal aid lawyer hopefuls from entering the profession, new social mobility research suggests.

The findings show high course costs for law school staples including the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) mean many aspiring legal aid lawyers graduate with high levels of debt. This, coupled with traditionally low legal aid salaries, acts as “a significant barrier” to the profession, according to a new report produced by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) group.

The research, Social Mobility in a Time of Austerity, reveals that almost three quarters (72%) of respondents have left or will leave law schools with debts in excess of £15,000. That’s a 7% increase on the last report’s findings, in 2013. Twenty-seven percent will have over £35,000, an increase of 11.5% since 2013.

YLAL received 200 responses from its 3,500-strong membership. Over three quarters (78%) of the participants are female, indicating “an over-representation of women working in the sector”, according to the report. All of those who participated in the research are less than ten-years post-qualified.

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In terms of remuneration, over half of respondents (53%) said they earn less than £25,000. By way of comparison, Legal Cheek’s Firms Most List shows that a rookie at a top commercial outfit can receive (before tax) a salary in excess of £100,000. One respondent described the comparison as “extremely disheartening”, while another told the YLAL:

“I work as hard or harder as my friends in the commercial sector but for far less money. It is tempting to leave the legal aid profession for the commercial legal sector.”

Elsewhere but still on the subject of remuneration, the report says unpaid work experience continues to “represent a barrier to social mobility”. Three quarters of respondents said they had completed unpaid work experience. One YLAL member said:

“The industry simply has TOO many graduates fighting for too few paid positions — within the LA [legal aid] sector.”

It’s not just entry to the profession which is a concern for YLAL, but retention of lawyers once they get there. The report cites “stress” and “lack of support” as reasons for why many lawyers ditch publicly-funded work. It says: “The combination of feeling underpaid, undervalued, working long hours, and a lack of training and support meant that many felt meeting a basic standard of care to clients represented a significant burden.”

Commenting on their stint at the legal aid coalface, one former criminal barrister told researchers:

“Unfortunately, I no longer work in legal aid. The junior criminal bar became too much; the financial anxiety was overwhelming. Working ten-hour days when you didn’t know if you were going to be paid or not became too much.”

Rounding off its extensive report, the YLAL makes a number of recommendations, including: greater regulation over law school fees, new robust profession-backed guidance on work experience, and greater welfare support for those working within the legal aid sector.

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